“The goals migrated:” impersonal language and malicious obfuscation in political speech  

It's all too rare that political speech comes off as anything but "blah." It doesn't have to be that way.

Political speech relies on verbal manipulation, one prominent example: impersonal language that  avoids assigning (or taking) responsibility.

“Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, a retired rear admiral, recently said that during the long U.S. undertaking in Afghanistan ‘the goals did migrate over time.’  Did the goals themselves have agency – minds of their own?”

George Will

When I listen to or read the speech of the people who represent the government and the military-industrial complex, I hear impersonal language and, typically, malicious obfuscation.   By that I mean that they speak, as bureaucrats and politicians always have, in terms that, because people on the receiving end rarely subject them to critical scrutiny, are accepted at face value, though a moment’s consideration reveals how devious and deceptive they are.

People don’t pay attention

People outside the editorial class (and even a lot of them inside it) really don’t pay much attention to language.  That’s too bad, because the unethical and manipulative use of language is everywhere.

Setting aside all the alternate facts, conspiracy theories, and the like, each one deserving of a separate post, let’s focus on the language practices of our ruling class, because that’s one kind of speech that affects all of us.

Lying and more

Why do we let politicians get away with not only outright lying (often recognized, never punished) but also the unethical, politicized use of language?

Arbitrary re-definition

How come nobody calls politicians out for arbitrarily redefining words to suit their purposes, e.g. infrastructure broadened to include ‘everything that’s necessary for everything else’ so they can get us to pay for it?  You can’t just declare that something means what you say it means.  In the summer of 2022, they’re arguing abut what constitutes a “recession.”  Same logic: if we re-label reality, it won’t be so scary.


How come they aren’t called out for name-calling? Why is any policy that for ANY reason disproportionately affects people of a predetermined ethnic or gender category necessarily “racist” or “xenophobic”?  These are argument-enders, not starters.

Sinister euphemisms

How come they’re not called out for inventing neutral-sounding euphemisms with sinister political purposes, as with equity as a cover for ‘forced equal outcome’?

Impersonal language

And why are they not called out for using impersonal language to cover the misguided, inept, and malign actions of actual persons?

The goals “migrated”?

Let us, to use the current buzzword, unpack this sentence.

It looks like a simple intransitive sentence, without an object, as in the wind blew or profits increased.   But in mimicking these sentences, it conceals a myriad of events and decisions, all rooted in human agency.  In the “profits” example, the hearer/reader may well know that the increase is due to human action.

But “the goals migrated”?

Human agency is completely concealed just by not being mentioned, and the verbal fog of non-responsibility is further thickened by the indeterminate meaning of both words, far removed from everyday empirical examples.

The phrase represents not a single event, as the phraseology would have us believe, but rather the consensus of countless politicians, functionaries, bureaucrats, generals, and in fact everyone down the chain of command – a gigantic pyramid of obedience, perpetuating error, fraud, corruption, and bloodshed over the decades, always obediently, CAUSING the goals to migrate.

That is what it takes for the goals to migrate.  Using a simple intransitive sentence covers a multitude of costly sins.

People did it

It was the actions and decisions of people in power and of those equipped to execute the decisions that all, over time, CAUSED the mission to CHANGE (I emphasize caused and change, because migrate suggests free movement, as with birds or fish, and this was anything but free movement) – from denying the Taliban refuge in Afghanistan…to remaking Afghanistan into New Hampshire by first bombing the hell out of it.

Here’s another example, same dodge: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the government’s watchdog over the Afghan experience, issued his final report. “The extraordinary costs were meant to serve a purpose,” the report notes, “though the definition of that purpose evolved over time.”

Impersonal language seems to be the go-to mode of expression when talking about “mission creep,” perhaps the original phraseology for the phenomenon (which, I would guess, nobody is allowed to say any more)

Not saying who did it

Just as common as the passive voice (as in the classic “mistakes were made”) as a way to avoid responsibility is the (self-)deceptive use of simple intransitives, in which there is no real-world, personal agent, and things just happen in a vacuum.

After hearing the device in the speech of politicians and bureaucrats, I started noting it in the speech of hoarders on TV (a guilty pleasure): “It just kinda got out of control” and other variations, in which, according to the grammar, the mess was somehow not caused by the hoarder.

More examples

Get and become can also create impersonal, blameless expressions; when used as verbs of transition, they are conspicuously vague as to the cause of the transition.   Thus we hear It became more than I could handle, not I let it become…

A choice example from corporate life: “The thinking is that…”  In other words, “people way more powerful than you…think that…”

Impersonal expressions can also use introductory, existential there, e.g., There’s been a lot of resistance, as well as expletive it with the passive, e.g., It’s been mandated that….

Another useful verb for impersonal expressions is need. She needs to be fired = (SOMEONE) needs for her to be fired.  Context always matters: with Sir, you need to step out of the vehicle, it’s quite clear who needs me to do so.

Pay attention to language

You can see for yourself how often people use malicious obfuscation to avoid personal responsibility.  Just start listening for impersonal language in contexts where it behooves the speaker/writer to be vague about who did what.  Examples are a lot more frequent than you might think, especially with political speech coming at us 24/7.

Bottom line:

If they avoid responsibility with their words, you can be sure they’ll do the same with their actions.  As in language, so in life.

#politics #politicallanguage #decisionmaking #impersonal language